The Battle of Isandlwanda, When A Stone Age Army Defeated A Modern Army.

The Battle of Isandlwanda January 23rd, 1897.
The Battle of Isandlwanda January 23rd, 1897.

The Zulu Wars were a struggle between Britain’s desire to hold colonial land in South Africa to defend their trade routes and port cities; and an indigenous people’s right to keep invaders off. It was also a battle of wills, and national pride. The Zulus wanted to rule their own lands, and the British were in no mood to give any ground, morally, militarily or otherwise to primitive tribes peoples. Plus, there was trade …money to be made. There was a strained sort of détente between the Zulu kings and the colonial occupiers. Shaka Zulu in the 1830s was a charismatic leader of the Nguni people who created nightmares for the British interlopers. He was a saavy and ruthless politician and the British would rather not have to deal with him, even though he had forcibly united the Nguni tribespeople to fight. It was the very notion that the civilized British were far above the primitive Zulus on the food chain that led to the disaster of the battle of Isandlwanda.

The Zulus did not have a standing army. Instead all the men of fighting age would fight. Shaka Zulu had forged a masculine, testosterone filled culture where tribesmen would pull together at a moments notice and generally act like a militia. Their militias like the colonials in the Revolutionary War were basically working class people who couldn’t afford to leave their families and duties unattended for long expeditions. So when Cetschwayo raised a 20 to 40,000 man Zulu army, he knew he had at best a few weeks to strike a decisive blow at the British.

The High Commissioner of South Africa for Britain, Frere Bartle, had a distinct dislike of the Zulu king Cetschwayo and seized upon faux outrage over a few tribal incidents that ultimately meant little more than a casus beli. First, a tribal chief’s wife ran off to another tribe. The chief’s son led a group that followed her and took her back where she was put to death under Zulu law. A few weeks later the lover she fled to was also captured and killed by sons of the offended kind Sirayo. Finally a couple of British surveyors were detained by Zulus and roughed up a bit. That became the cause celebre, the sinking of the Lusitania so to speak. Bartle then sent an ultimatum to Sirayo that he had to turn himself in to British authorities to be prosecuted.

This test of wills was a braking point of negotiations. The Zulus would not submit to British rulings and the British would not have their ultimatums ignored. The Queen did not know about the ultimatum sent to Sirayo but ultimately that meant little because after the Battle of Isandlwanda, the British were determined to put down the Zulus once and for all. That is another story for another day.

Cetschwayo's Zulu Forces Won The Day At Isandlwanda.
Cetschwayo’s Zulu Forces Won The Day At Isandlwanda.
Lord Chelmsford, The Textbook Example of Arrogant Command
Lord Chelmsford, The Textbook Example of Arrogant Commander Who’s Mistake Are Paid For In Blood. Despite The Disaster, Chemlsford Retained His Command.

A British force under Lord Chelmsford consisted of eight Imperial battalions of 800 men each plus large detachments of irregulars, or roughly 7,000 to 8,000 men. That meant twelve regular infantry companies which included the famous 24th Foot regiment, the 1st regiment, and the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment, which were troops already blooded by colonial combat. Some irregulars were South Africa born British white descendants. Some of the irregulars attached to the invading force were British trained native cavalry or African auxiliaries of the Natal Native Contingent who were mostly hired for their understanding of the Bantu language, the local terrain and their understanding of Zulu fighting methods. Otherwise, there were considered less reliable. They thought the African auxiliaries were less reliable probably the same way Patton felt the all-Black 761st armor division was unreliable; meaning it was mostly just prejudice plain and simple.

Timothy Pendergrast writes in Military History Magazine that Isandlwanda was a failure of intelligence. He asserts that Frederick Augustus Thesiger or Lord Chelmsford simply refused to see the signs that were culled together that would indicate where the Zulus were, what their strength was, and where they would attack. A border agent named  H. B. Finney put an intelligence estimate together entitled The Zulu Army, and it was largely ignored by Chelmsford. This was not a failure in intelligence. This was the albatross of Imperial arrogance. No force of “savages” armed with cowhide shields and assegais and a few old Brown Bess muskets could stop a modern disciplined army with the latest technology.

Chelmsford’s brevet, Colonel Sir William Bellairs wrote a field manual for surviving the ravages of African war in the south. He writes in the manual : “troops marching through the enemies country, or where there’s any possibility of attack, will, when halting, though but for a few hours, invariably form a wagon laager { circle the wagons-ed}.” The instructions go on to explain that the intervals between the wagons had to be closed and guarded, that trenches had to be built and revetments built of wood and stone and whatever is available.

But Chelmsford had different ideas, especially since he had slaughtered native insurgents in the Kaffir Wars and had little respect for them. In fact, he and his officer openly scoffed at the cautionary steps inundating the field rules. They called the instructions “Bellair’s Mixture,” as if it were pharmaceutical of the day.

Chelmsford’s strategy was to pitch camp and invite the Zulu Impi ( army) to attack. His biggest fear wasn’t warfare, it was that he would be denied a glorious victory. The Zulus were known to avoid set piece battle and instead use ambush and guerilla tactics. Like Indian tribes in the United States, African tribal warfare was not about huge battles, it was about raids and ambushes and horse stealing. It was constant low-level war that kept the opponents off balance. But Cetshwayo, the Zulu King, had similar visions of glory and that’s why many believe the total Zulu force was more like 40,000 warriors. He wanted to drive the invaders off his land in one day.

Chelmsford left half his force back in the Natal area. He took the remaining 4,000 or so and divided them into three columns, with the main column of about 1300 men in the center. Chelmsford moved into the Ulundi area believing it was the capital of Zululand, but the Zulus weren’t Europeans and did not take the bait. It was just another place in their homeland with little more significance than that.

So a small column of a 1,000 or so men were matching eastward in the north looking for the impi. A small column in the south was looking for them, and Chelmsford’s main column in the middle was also looking for a fight with the Zulus.

On the 21st of January 1879, the main column reached Isandlwanda and set camp. Chelmsford gave the command to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine, a man who was mostly an administrator with little or no combat experience. Pulliene helped to maintain the supply line filled with the implementa of warfare: boots, laces, socks, ankle supports, head gear, uniforms, extra buttons, ammunition, gun oil, wagon wheel spokes, horse feed, medical supplies, and this list would be longer than the article. Modern armies have to carry everything into theatre. The supply line was slowed by the weight of the baggage and the middle column moved 16 kilometers in 10 days. The Impi advanced 80 kilometers in 5 days.

Advanced pickets in the British middle column scouted few more than 20 kilometers ahead, where in any other theatre of battle they would have advanced at least 32 kilometers in any direction. What they did see was a Zulu force of about 4,000 men towards Roarke’s Drift to the East. Many believe this was just a diversionary force but Chelmsford was chomping at the bit to engage and took slightly more than half the middle column and headed out to follow the Zulus. He left behind Pulleine and little more than 1,300 people. Before he left, Chelmsford specifically told Pulleine not to circle wagons, not to entrench, and not to barricade the detachment. He felt it would take too long and was unnecessary in the face of overwhelming firepower: two cannon with grapeshot, men with Martini-Henry rifles and vaunted British discipline.

What his scouts failed to see was the impi force of 22,000 men , that had quietly marched in overnight and set camp in a ravine only four miles away from Pulleine. Not too long after Chelmsford left with half the forces, a scout from Pulleine’s camp saw a couple of Zulus herding cattle and gave chase.

They say quantity has a quality all its own. That said, I wonder if this scene was ever made into a movie. But the scout followed the herder into the ravine and right over the hill he stops and sees 22,000 Zulu warriors sitting quietly in front of him. Enough scouts actually made it back to camp to give the British a short warning.

The Assegai, Weapon of Choice By Zulus
The Assegai, Weapon of Choice By Zulus
Martini Henry Breech Loading Rifles, Carried By The British At Isandlwanda
Martini Henry Breech Loading Rifles, Carried By The British At Isandlwanda

Game on.

The Zulu commanders were planning an attack the very next morning. But when the scout had found them at 8:30 AM on the 23rd of January 1879 there was no more reason to wait and the Zulu Impi poured out of the ravine in their famous two pronged cattle horn formation and smashed into Pulleine’s encampment.

Pulleine received a cavalry pickets warning and deployed several firing lines out in front of the encampment, backed by Royal Horse Artillery and some rocket fire. The firing line pinned down the right horn of the Impi and the middle of the horn crest; and for many hours waves of Zulu warriors were cut down by enfilading gunfire from Martini-Henry breech loaders. Pulleine’s men held their own for several hours and inflicted significant casualties. At some point there was a logistics problem that proved the undoing of the British encampment. Though the number of men with repeating rifles should have been able to cause 25,000 casualties on advancing troops, the soldiers were having a hard time getting new boxes of ammunition to the front lines in time, and also that the men were having a hard time opening the boxes and reloading. Before long every one had burned through their 75 round allotment and was scrambling to reload.

But the left horn under Cetshwayo’s brother in law Dabulamanzi kaMpande, consisted of perhaps 8000 warriors were in position and laying low just over  rise behind Pulleine’s position. Around 1:30 PM, when the rate of fire was dwindling, the firing lines began withdrawing to the wagons. Unfortunately their withdrawal was somewhat unorganized when one company left, they exposed another company. Waiting for a grand moment of confusion in the British lines, kaMpande’s warriors suddenly poured in from overthe hill behind the encampment and achieved the day’s second tactical surprise. Screaming, assegai’s flying, it must have been absolutely terrifying.

By 3 PM, 895 British troops and 500 native troops, and auxiliaries lay dead, a total of 1329 on the British side. The entire 1st regiment ceased to exist. On the Zulu side, 1,000 dead and 2,000 wounded.

The landscape of the battlefield around Isandlwanda was not unlike the landscape of Waterloo. It was a series of rolling hills and undulating creeks and timberlines, almost like a Grandma Moses painting. Entire armies could hide over the crest of a hill, and on the morning of 23rd January, one did.

Victor David Hanson writes about the battle, and about why the Zulus won and British did not prevail that day.

“The Zulus in 1879 outnumbered their British invaders by at least 50-1. At Rorke’s Drift they were equipped with the finest weapons in the British Empire — stolen after their surprise slaughter of a British column the night before at Islawhanda. Nevertheless, less than 100 able-bodied British-surrounded 5,000 Zulus for 16 hours of continual firing. The key to the British victory was not their superb single-shot Martini-Henry rifles — the Zulus had more of them than did the British. The edge, as in the case of automatic weapons in Mogadishu, was in how they were used.

British junior officers maintained strict fire control. Redcoats, again like the Americans in Mogadishu — were masters of firing in concert, knew intimately the range and variance of their weapons, and protected the comrades at their sides. In contrast, the courageous Zulus — like the Somalis — attacked in uncoordinated packs, lacked an overall centralized command, often shot randomly and without careful aim. Few seemed to have any training or knowledge about either the proper tactics of small-arms fire or the standard use and maintenance of modern firearms. Any would-be killer can be given a sophisticated weapon — whether a Somali irregular, an Iraqi tanker, a Zulu warrior, or an Aztec lord — who attempted to turn captured crossbows against the conquistadors — but the proper use of such weapons, not their mere existence on the battlefield, determines whether they turn out to be haphazardly dangerous or instead uniformly deadly.”

The Battle of Roarke’s Drift flared the next day and ended as a stalemate. The tactical win by the Zulus did no good ultimately except for storytellers and Hollywood. The British just came back with a superior force, and as my Mom says: the Rest You Know.

Sources and Citations.

Pendergrast, Thomas. “Zulu Surprise.” Military History Magazine: April, 1995.

Ian Knight, The Zulu War 1879, Osprey, 2003

Barthorp, M The Zulu War: Isandhlwana to Ulundi Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002


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